Witch Hunt 2010: Social Media

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The state of the universe.

Don’t Touch That Dial!A history of media technology scares, from the printing press to Facebook.

A respected Swiss scientist, Conrad Gessner, might have been the first to raise the alarm about the effects of information overload. In a landmark book, he described how the modern world overwhelmed people with data and that this overabundance was both “confusing and harmful” to the mind. The media now echo his concerns with reports on the unprecedented risks of living in an “always on” digital environment. It’s worth noting that Gessner, for his part, never once used e-mail and was completely ignorant about computers. That’s not because he was a technophobe but because he died in 1565. His warnings referred to the seemingly unmanageable flood of information unleashed by the printing press.

Worries about information overload are as old as information itself, with each generation reimagining the dangerous impacts of technology on mind and brain. From a historical perspective, what strikes home is not the evolution of these social concerns, but their similarity from one century to the next, to the point where they arrive anew with little having changed except the label.

These concerns stretch back to the birth of literacy itself. In parallel with modern concerns about children’s overuse of technology, Socrates famously warned against writing because it would “create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories.” He also advised that children can’t distinguish fantasy from reality, so parents should only allow them to hear wholesome allegories and not “improper” tales, lest their development go astray. The Socratic warning has been repeated many times since: The older generation warns against a new technology and bemoans that society is abandoning the “wholesome” media it grew up with, seemingly unaware that this same technology was considered to be harmful when first introduced.

Gessner’s anxieties over psychological strain arose when he set about the task of compiling an index of every available book in the 16th century, eventually published as the Bibliotheca universalis. Similar concerns arose in the 18th century, when newspapers became more common. The French statesman Malesherbes railed against the fashion for getting news from the printed page, arguing that it socially isolated readers and detracted from the spiritually uplifting group practice of getting news from the pulpit. A hundred years later, as literacy became essential and schools were widely introduced, the curmudgeons turned against education for being unnatural and a risk to mental health. An 1883 article in the weekly medical journal the Sanitarian argued that schools “exhaust the children’s brains and nervous systems with complex and multiple studies, and ruin their bodies by protracted imprisonment.” Meanwhile, excessive study was considered a leading cause of madness by the medical community.

When radio arrived, we discovered yet another scourge of the young: The wireless was accused of distracting children from reading and diminishing performance in school, both of which were now considered to be appropriate and wholesome. In 1936, the music magazine the Gramophone reported that children had “developed the habit of dividing attention between the humdrum preparation of their school assignments and the compelling excitement of the loudspeaker” and described how the radio programs were disturbing the balance of their excitable minds. The television caused widespread concern as well: Media historian Ellen Wartella has noted how “opponents voiced concerns about how television might hurt radio, conversation, reading, and the patterns of family living and result in the further vulgarization of American culture.”

By the end of the 20th century, personal computers had entered our homes, the Internet was a global phenomenon, and almost identical worries were widely broadcast through chilling headlines: CNN reported that “Email ‘hurts IQ more than pot’,” the Telegraph that “Twitter and Facebook could harm moral values” and the “Facebook and MySpace generation ‘cannot form relationships’,” and the Daily Mail ran a piece on “How using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer.” Not a single shred of evidence underlies these stories, but they make headlines across the world because they echo our recurrent fears about new technology.

These fears have also appeared in feature articles for more serious publications: Nicolas Carr’s influential article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” for the Atlantic suggested the Internet was sapping our attention and stunting our reasoning; the Times of London article “Warning: brain overload” said digital technology is damaging our ability to empathize; and a piece in the New York Times titled “The Lure of Data: Is It Addictive?” raised the question of whether technology could be causing attention deficit disorder. All of these pieces have one thing in common—they mention not one study on how digital technology is affecting the mind and brain. They tell anecdotes about people who believe they can no longer concentrate, talk to scientists doing peripherally related work, and that’s it. Imagine if the situation in Afghanistan were discussed in a similar way. You could write 4,000 words for a major media outlet without ever mentioning a relevant fact about the war. Instead, you’d base your thesis on the opinions of your friends and the guy down the street who works in the kebab shop. He’s actually from Turkey, but it’s all the same, though, isn’t it?

There is, in fact, a host of research that directly tackles these issues. To date, studies suggest there is no consistent evidence that the Internet causes mental problems. If anything, the data show that people who use social networking sites actually tend to have better offline social lives, while those who play computer games are better than nongamers at absorbing and reacting to information with no loss of accuracy or increased impulsiveness. In contrast, the accumulation of many years of evidence suggests that heavy television viewing does appear to have a negative effect on our health and our ability to concentrate. We almost never hear about these sorts of studies anymore because television is old hat, technology scares need to be novel, and evidence that something is safe just doesn’t make the grade in the shock-horror media agenda.

The writer Douglas Adams observed how technology that existed when we were born seems normal, anything that is developed before we turn 35 is exciting, and whatever comes after that is treated with suspicion. This is not to say all media technologies are harmless, and there is an important debate to be had about how new developments affect our bodies and minds. But history has shown that we rarely consider these effects in anything except the most superficial terms because our suspicions get the better of us. In retrospect, the debates about whether schooling dulls the brain or whether newspapers damage the fabric of society seem peculiar, but our children will undoubtedly feel the same about the technology scares we entertain now. It won’t be long until they start the cycle anew.

four square

Currency: selling names and data to advertisers. Always has been always will.

I still have not joined the foursquare revolution – as me. I’ve checked it out but I’m not ready to broadcast my whereabouts to my network. What if I WANT to sneak off at 4pm for a manicure in between meetings? Does the world really need to know how many cups of coffee a day I consume from my local caffeine dealer?

Still – foursquare is fascinating. And as usual – an advertiser driven revenue model is at the end of the chain. But who’s spending advertising money? We need a new term to describe  “direct to consumer social media marketing advertising that you pay for.” and then convince people to pay for it….i mean we haven’t even converted people to paying for pre-roll or post-roll yet and HOW many hours of viewing time does online video content get?

Foursquare Plots Its Business Model

Dennis Crowley and Naveen Selvadurai of foursquareNEW YORK (AdAge.com) — Don’t look now, but big brands are checking in on Foursquare. Pepsi, frozen-dessert chain Tasti D-Lite and cable network Bravo are all attempting to harness the power of the mobile game/social network.

The question is whether they’ll pay for the privilege. Or whether Foursquare, which has 300,000 users now voluntarily “checking in” at locations, and broadcasting that to their followers, will transcend its current “it” status among the technorati and become a lasting consumer phenomenon — and a marketing tool.

In December, Pepsi made a small bet on the startup as part of its Refresh Everything community-giving push. For every point earned in New York, Pepsi donated 4 cents to inner-city youth center Camp Interactive. After one week, New Yorkers on Foursquare earned 225,000 points, and nearly $10,000 for the organization.

‘Huge opportunity’
It was a small deal with a big brand that generated little if any revenue for Foursquare. Still, it got Pepsi excited about the possibilities.

“From a broad strategy point of view, there’s a huge potential with the ability to connect people to promotional experiences,” said Bonin Bough, PepsiCo’s global director of digital and social media. “We know where people are and can talk to them from a geo-located perspective — that’s a huge opportunity.”

That’s exciting, also, for Foursquare, which in this deal and others is starting to build the foundation of a revenue model on location-based marketing services. Foursquare is planning paid services for three tiers of businesses: small, privately owned stores and restaurants; brands with retail chains, such as Tasti D-Lite; and huge multinational marketers such as Pepsi.

For bigger brands, Foursquare is developing an analytics dashboard so businesses can track who’s coming into their stores. Then, deals could be sold against impressions such as web ads, clicks such as search ads, or a completely new model: cost per check-in.

Moving beyond early adopters
But before it can do any of that, Foursquare must prove it can expand beyond early adopters and educate marketers on how to use the service in ways its fickle users won’t hate.

“We’ve been hesitant to just shoot ad copy through our system,” said Tristan Walker, Foursquare’s head of business development. “Once we start to put in generic specials, we’re just another channel to distribute promotions.”

For now, marketers are availing themselves of Foursquare’s free tools, and some are liking the results. Checking-in in the vicinity of a Tasti D-Lite shop? You may get served a coupon from the Tennessee-based chain, which is testing a free service from Foursquare called “specials nearby.”

“Preliminary data is showing that this is driving foot traffic in stores,” said B.J. Emerson, director-information and social technologies for the 50-store chain. “We’ll most likely pursue this where we can measure effectiveness and return.”

The company also launched a loyalty program that’s synched with Foursquare and Twitter, so customers earn points for making purchases and for checking in. When visits are published to customers’ Twitter stream, Tasti D-Lite gets in front of all their friends, and a customer earns extra points toward free dessert.

Using, not paying, Foursquare
Right now, Specials Nearby — there are nearly 700 since Foursquare launched the feature in summer — are free to businesses. So is the API off which Mr. Emerson built the loyalty program. Likewise, Foursquare’s Bravo deal gives the company TV exposure, if not revenue.

“I think marketers will be interested in Foursquare, assuming the audience keeps growing,” said David Berkowitz, director-emerging media at digital agency 360i. “The lasting value will be from the smaller deals Foursquare will find ways to monetize.”

It’s a difficult balance: Foursquare’s ability to continue to grow depends on its users accepting at least a bit of marketing along with the badges, or honorifics, they earn, such as “mayor” (for most visits), “newbie,” “bender” (for consecutive nights out) and, yes, even “douchebag” (for checking in at places like Barneys).

Zero to 300,000 isn’t bad for an app that launched less than a year ago. It took more than three years for Twitter to reach its current fever pitch. But even as it grows, Foursquare will have to answer the same questions. Research firm Sysomos estimates that 5% of Twitter users generate 75% of activity.

Much will depend on whether it can maintain its cool. “The X-factor appeal of Foursquare is in its social currency,” Mr. Berkowitz said. “Giving Foursquare users these badges for completing explicit tasks adds an element of surprise, like a scavenger hunt. And you can’t ignore the bragging rights.”

copyright

Perhaps the concept of Copyright Needs to be Rebranded? Creativeright?

This article is one of the best discussions on copyright i’ve read in a while.  It talks about the true purpose of copyright….to ensure the creation of content – specificaly in “science and the useful arts”. It would seem that at this point we have too MUCH in the “useful arts category” what with all the TONS of UGC out there….but this article is a great reminder of why we need SOME sort of system.

Thanks to Nate Anderson at ars technica.

Contextualizing the copyright debate: reward vs. creativity

In a post on the declining revenues of the record business, progressive blogger Matt Yglesias wrote last week, “It is, of course, possible that at some point the digital music situation will start imperiling the ability of consumers to enjoy music. The purpose of intellectual property law is to prevent that from happening, and if it does come to pass we’ll need to think seriously about rejiggering things.”Is that the purpose of copyright law? Sonny Bunch at America’s Future Foundation didn’t think so, but his debate with Yglesias turned out to be much more than one of the numerous daily spats that make up life in the blogosphere. Instead, it went to very nature of a crucial institution like copyright—and it asks whether that institution exists to help the creators or society at large.

It’s worth thinking about the answers.

It’s my God-given right… or is it?

When you title a post “Piracy. Is. Stealing.” and then devote a mere five paragraphs to the topic, no reader who has fought for even a day on the battlefields of the Copyright Wars is going to expect much… and Bunch’s post delivers on those low expectations.

Bunch has little patience for Yglesias’s view of copyright and insists instead that “the purpose of intellectual property law is to protect the intellectual property created by artists so they are rewarded for their efforts. The purpose of intellectual property law is to punish people who steal that which isn’t theirs.”

So—the basic purpose is “protection” in order to “reward” creators. Bunch does hand-wave vaguely in the direction of the Constitution by adding, “Yes, copyright was created in part because there were concerns that authors wouldn’t bother creating new work if they were consistently stolen from.” But this is immediately undercut with the next sentence, which says, “More importantly, copyright law evolved because we think that artists, writers, musicians, and others have a right to profit from their labors.”

Bunch asserts a basic right to profit from creative work; think of this as a “strong property rights” approach to copyright. It sounds good, but the Constitution knows nothing of this theory. Bunch is correct that the secondary purpose of copyright is to reward creators for their work, but only insofar as to encourage the primary purpose of copyright, the continued creation of new work.

In the US Constitution, Congress may use copyright to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” Note that nothing about author’s rights appears here; if Congress decided that such promotion could in fact be achieved with a copyright term of a single day, it would be free to do so—and creators could not complain on the grounds that they have a property right in those works. “Progress” is the only criterion allowed.

“Monopoly is an evil”

This wasn’t a radical new idea, but one that emerged from English copyright law. The Statute of Anne (1709) was one of the world’s first real copyright laws, and it provided protection to authors “for the Encouragement of Learning,” not because authors had a full property right in their work.

In 1841, Thomas Macaulay gave one of the world’s most famous speeches about copyright, and he explained the principle in more detail. He told his fellow members of the House of Commons, “It is good that authors should be remunerated; and the least exceptionable way of remunerating them is by a monopoly. Yet monopoly is an evil. For the sake of the good we must submit to the evil; but the evil ought not to last a day longer than is necessary for the purpose of securing the good.”

But why should authors be paid—was it because they had the inalienable right to control their own work in perpetuity? No. “It is desirable that we should have a supply of good books; we cannot have such a supply unless men of letters are liberally remunerated; and the least objectionable way of remunerating them is by means of copyright.”

Again, the goal is society-wide progress, but copyright should not last “a day longer than is necessary” to secure it.

One does not have to like this. As an author, there are many times when I don’t like this. That’s because, taking this policy to its limit, copyright law only needs to help creators earn a single penny more than the smallest amount of money they need to keep creating. That sounds like a pretty miserable existence, one in which creators might never make much of a living even as they keep a culture vibrant and entertained.

Not that Congress has any intention of doing this, though; in fact, it seems as if legislatures around the world can move copyright in only one direction, toward longer terms—and this despite the tremendous outpouring of worldwide creativity we continue to see. The process is even more bizarre when applied retroactively, since the incentive to create was already enough to produce the works being given additional protection.

Still, this is how US law works (or is supposed to work). Copyright exists for society, and only secondarily for the creator. Complaining about that is one thing; denying that it’s the point of the law is another.

Bunch’s post inspired the obvious retort from Yglesias: “The point of intellectual property law is to benefit consumers, not producers.” And he called in his defense Tim Lee and Julian Sanchez, both frequent contributors to Ars over the last few years.

Pricing songs

One quibble with Yglesias comes in his original post, when he claims that “under conditions of perfect competition, the price of a song ought to be equal to the marginal cost of distributing a new copy of a song. Which is to say that the marginal cost ought to be $0. That’s not a question of habit, you can look it up in all the leading textbooks.”

This is clearly not true; the price of a good in a perfect world would be some fraction of its upfront cost plus its marginal cost. If I write a novel, and it takes me a year of full-time work, but it can be distributed digitally at a marginal cost of $0, that hardly implies that I should price it at $0. I may price it that way, especially if I make money in other ways—through speaking fees, perhaps, or other paper editions of the book. But a year of my time is a fixed cost that needs to be considered when setting the price.

In any event, what’s almost more interesting than the debate itself is what it says about copyright. That is, even once-arcane battles over the meaning of copyright now appear on hugely popular political blogs. People can argue about this stuff with passion and interest, drawing in history, philosophy, law, and economics.

The public fascination with copyright looks like a terrific development, one that forces unrepentant file-sharers to think through the ethical and legal implications of their position but also prevents corporate copyright counsel from simply rewriting the law in a back room with a few Congressmen. One suspects that, if the Mickey Mouse Protection Act were put up in Congress in this climate, it couldn’t pass.